Living in spin

After thirty six years in PR and communications, and nearly twenty three years with my firm Weber Shandwick, my boss Andy Polansky and I announced yesterday my stepping down from the firm and PR in early 2018.

For me it was a mix of excitement about the future and focussing on my family and my personal creative projects, and sadness at leaving such a great firm, team and industry.


Having failed to make a living as a music journalist and new wave poet (oh yes) I fell into PR thanks to my first boss Barry Walsh (then head of PR for The Automobile Association and now a published novelist, and still an inspiration to me).

new wave poet

As a working class Northerner who didn’t even know what PR was (and didn’t possess a driving licence) it was a lucky break in the graduate unemployment hit 1980s.

That break taught me a valuable lesson. Don’t wait to be asked or accidentally discovered. I put on my only suit one day and marched up to the top floor and banged on his office door. Luckily he saw my potential. I have tried to do the same in others ever since, regardless of education and social and cultural background.

After a couple of other jobs I read an interview in The Guardian with Labour’s new director of communications, a certain Peter Mandelson. He talked of how the Left had to match the Tories at their own game on professional marketing and communications. I wrote to him saying I shared his view. He invited me in for coffee and I walked out with a job. Another lesson – be proactive. Put yourself about.

Peter also became my mentor, and I always urge young PRs to seek out someone they admire and can learn from. Worked for me.


Political communications is not for the faint hearted, but I had a great time, learned a lot, and worked with politicians like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and great strategists like the late Phillip Gould and Deborah Mattheson, not to mention the Red Wedge collective.

Then came The Prince’s Trusts. There was some opposition to this working class lefty being allowed near Prince Charles’ inner sanctum, but I got there and survived several attempts by Luddites in the Royal Household to fire me.

While at The Prince’s Trusts ( comms director for the PoW’s International Business Leaders Forum) I got to travel the world as part of PC’s entourage. I was a long way from Salford.

prince charles

I also got pro bono support from an international PR agency (who will remain nameless and I am sure will have improved). I thought they were a useless bunch of chinless wonders, adding little value and dressing up plain common sense in over complicated marketing bollocks.


I was sceptical therefore to be approached by another international PR firm, Shandwick, back in 1995. On offer was a senior role in their London public affairs practice, which like most PA firms in the mid 1990s were stuffed full of Tories and old-style lobbyists. I took the plunge, got a decent wedge for the first time and a company motor, and have barely regretted a day since. I am very proud as a working class son of Salford and Irish immigrants to have ended up running a big chunk of the world’s second largest and most respected PR firm, with a stellar list of clients.

I am also proud of the work we do in partnership with clients which has made us the most award-winning and Cannes Lions winning EMEA PR network. I am deeply grateful to Lord McNally, Lord Chadlington, Shandwick’s founder, who gave me my first agency role, Harris Diamond (now leading mega ad network McCann) who gave me the UK CEO role at Weber Shandwick and my current boss Andy Polansky who promoted me to run Europe and now EMEA in 2008.

Sensing my impending decrepitude following my recent blog proclaiming I had hit 60, some very nice people have been asking me what I want to do next in PR. The answer is simple – nothing.

to do nothing
You never say never, but after four decades in this industry, surfing the exciting waves of change we have been going through since the social media revolution, and working in a senior role for one of the top two firms in the international agency space, and certainly the most creatively awarded in this region, me and PR are kinda done with each other.

Having talked about creativity for a decade, it’s now time for me to focus on my own creative ambitions and passions. Over the coming year I will be heading back to college to do an MA in creative writing, and I want to write full time as well as be more of a full-time dad to my three young boys.

So thanks PR, you’ve been good to me, and I have tried to give something back to you. But it’s not the be all and end all.

What I do want to do over the coming year, as well as serve my firm and colleagues with the commitment I have always shown and they deserve, is to continue to make waves on diversity – social as well as ethnic – and broadening the talent pool in PR. We need the next generation of Jamal Edwards, not just black or Asian traditional media relations people. We need greater social as well as cultural and skill set diversity.


PR spends too much time looking inwards at PR. In a post digital, creative content driven world, our future talent probably hasn’t even heard of PR. We just have to work harder to attract them, interest them, promote and retain them.

So what has this gnarled old PR vet gleaned from nearly four decades of living in spin?

Firstly, I believe that the biggest drivers of change in our industry for most of its history have both occurred in the past decade – the social media revolution and the opening up of the Cannes Lions festival to PR. Social media has not just got us out of the media relations silo it has levelled the playing field in marketing. We in PR are no longer always second fiddle to advertising.

On the other hand Cannes has forced us to see our work not just up against other PR firms, but in the context of the most creative minds in marketing and communications. It has forced us to raise our game on creativity and strategy. That’s a good thing, and to those in PR who feel uncomfortable or exposed – that’s the point!


Secondly, we have to stop talking well-meaningly about diversity and start to act decisively on it. There are great schemes out there like The Taylor Bennett Foundation’s work with Brunswick and FTI, and Weber Shandwick’s partnership with The Media Trust, that can be picked up on and joined. We recently put senior managers through unconscious bias training which I can recommend. And we have to set ourselves real, measurable targets in terms of BAME consulting staff.

Thirdly, and I say this to all junior staff I speak to on managing their PR careers, get yourself a mentor. They don’t have to be the greatest political strategist of their generation (like mine) but they will be someone whose career and thinking you admire. And if you are senior, try reverse mentoring. Get digitally native Millennials and Gen z’s to teach you stuff about latest trends and SoMe innovations. They live it, you learn it.

Fourthly, I solidly believe that everyone should work both sides of the in-house/agency divide. Without that level of understanding, unconscious “us and them” attitudes persist.

Fifth, it’s not enough just to talk creativity, have a pink plaster cow in reception or rebadge some dude from the consumer practice with a cool haircut and trainers as ‘creative director’. You have to give your team creative inspiration and space to absorb creative energy. You can’t expect staff to sit for ten hours a day at a desk and suddenly turn on the creative brilliance. Set them free to be creative.

Finally, I am often asked about my management style. If I have one it is probably part Alex from A Clockwork Orange, part Michael Corleone, part Sun Tzu and part Machiavelli. Occasionally being a twat but always trying to be authentic. I can live with that.


So that’s all for now. I will continue to use my blog partly to write on PR, an industry that has occupied two thirds of my life.

A SLOG (short blog) on technology

Today we are fascinated by the dizzying pace of change. The Internet is the new Industrial Revolution. Wired is as influential as The Economist. Brands like Uber, Facebook, Ocado, Tinder, dominate our lives. Brilliantly innovative technology companies with cars, cat videos, groceries and casual sex attached. What we once read as niche, inky, badly spelled, loss-making newspapers are now 100m reader-strong (still loss-making) global media platforms. The new iPhone is celebrated with more excitement and media coverage than a groundbreaking new drug that will save millions (or, I suspect, the Second Coming). Cannes is as much a tech event as a creative awards showcase.


Yes we live at an exciting time, and we are very clever.

But get this. In just three short years, 1895 to 1897, three groundbreaking discoveries occurred. X-rays, radioactivity and the electron. The second winning the first Nobel Prize for a woman, Marie Curie. Three years.

So be excited about the post-Internet technology revolution. But read history as well. We are not as clever as we think. We are not yet “The Supermen”.

Social customer service

In all the excitement about Twitter – a gift to gobby Mancunians everywhere – over its short life to date, some marketeers quickly cottoned on to its potential for enhancing or even replacing existing customer service infrastructure. Why have expensive human beings sitting around just waiting for calls and drinking the firm’s terrible coffee, or customers forced to listen to shit jazz while they wait half an hour as some bit of AI tells them they are sorry about the wait, you are a deeply valued customer etc, then connects you to a bad line in outer Mongolia and they hang up on you, when you could manage it more instantaneously and engagingly (and cheaply) via Twitter.

Bit like…..why have all that messy democracy and the expense of a bunch of suits on private jets and big shouty White House press conferences when you can have some old bigot on a toilet with a smartphone.


Indeed, the theory is sound. Twitter is absolutely my favourite SoMe platform, I spend so much time on it my assistant Kylie has threatened to break my arm and I was thinking of auditioning to be a judge on The Voice (love that show, bloody love it. Max to win.) Twitter could have a good run at being the 8th Wonder of the World. It is democratic, intelligent, fast, versatile, marvellous.

On the other hand it is used by most of the worst racist, sexist, homophobic, semi -literate, unpleasant, ranty, bigoted, stupid, broadcast-mode (on an engagement platform!), self obsessed, authoritarian wankers in the world. They use cars and phones and toilet paper also. We should blame cars and phones and toilet paper????

As my (clearly disappointed ☹️) first girlfriend once said, it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it. To paraphrase, it’s not your number of characters that matter, it’s what you say with them.

People say things on Twitter,  Facebook and other platforms they would never – apart from the worst of the racist, sexist, etc etc twats on Twitter (“TATs”) – say face to face or even down the phone. AI is no substitute for empathy.

This week I have directly addressed, in politest Byrne-speak, four major brands as a customer – a major transport organisation, a world class media brand, a major high street brand and one of many runners up in the The UK’s Crappiest Train Operator awards. Not one has tweeted, messaged back. That is not engagement. You may think your customer is demanding, fickle, maybe a bit bolshy, but you don’t ignore them on one of the world’s most public and democratic platforms.

With Twitter brands can engage with fans, customers, detractors, potential customers, where they are and right now. Yet so many just use it as another one way blah blah marketing platform, and overlook that it can help to make your brand human, it can engage and inform, in an instant. Sometimes they do get it but download it to some poor intern not yet steeped in the science of great customer service and experience.

So frankly I was pissed off. I get more engagement with my mum on Twitter than with a train company I spend fucking thousands of pounds a year on.

I was mildly ranting about this with my friend Kate in the office. She had a different story. She was walking past a building site and the builders, wittingly or unwittingly, covered her in cement dust. She was pretty pissed, as this is one stylish, smart and strong woman. She yelled at them. She reached for her Twitter Machine ready to blast the buggers into Kingdom Come.

But then she did something less fashionable but more effective. She called the building company. She talked to a person. They had a civil conversation and the customer service guy followed up with an email apologising again and promising an investigation into what could have been a serious accident.

Good customer service. Good engagement. Person to person.

So while I enjoy a good old twitter rant about my duffo train company, and get loads of retweets from Twitter accounts just set up to lampoon and digitally flay them alive, truth is it is all heat and noise. The buggers aren’t listening and don’t feel they have to.

So, Twitter can be a great customer engagement tool. But if a brand just isn’t listening, if the Twitter account was the idea of the Chairman’s clever grandson Rupert and a SoMe token gesture, it just makes bad customer experience even worse.


Life, love, loss, death and movies

Despite once having tried to earn a crust reviewing gigs, plays and movies, I don’t write much about movies. These days the telly has writing like those two greats, the first respective episodes of The Sopranos and The Affair, so less need for movies. But Arrival impressed me so much I am still chewing it over. The best stories do that. They resonate and reverberate. An instantly  forgotten story, a confection once tasted soon mentally discarded,  is a poor story.

I say best story. It wasn’t the best film. After a brilliant opening scene that could have fronted any genre of movie – five minutes of brilliant writing which is a mini movie in itself – it developed into an intelligent but occasionally hackneyed movie: a hundred and twenty years on from the publication of War of the Worlds by HG Wells, aliens are still being served up as things with tentacles that you might find in the chiller cabinet of a sushi restaurant.



But that opening five minutes of love and loss! As an aspirant writer I had to acknowledge that a couple of Hollywood scriptwriters achieved a better written, more condensed and compelling story than I might write in a lifetime.

Arrival is not a sci-fi movie. It’s a reflection on life – and communication – told against the backdrop of alien contact. The best in the genre are – 2001; A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET, all were about life and death and people stuff, not face ripping baddy aliens with ray guns  or Cold War paranoia. (I wonder if in Trump’s America we will see a resurgence of that 1950′s space age cowboy movie?Cue Independence Day 3, 4, 5…)  As a non American, I thought Arrival was the best film on the current American psyche (walls, communication and miscommunication, let’s kick those goddam aliens out of town etc) since American Beauty.

In the early seventies three artistic events shaped my early teens: David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust, and the films 2001 and A Clockwork Orange – two directed by that most artistically visual of directors Stanley Kubrick, and one heavily influenced by both films.
In my little world I can draw a straight line from 2001 in the late sixties to Arrival in 2017, via Close Encounters and, yes, ET.

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

They are similar in that they use extra terrestrials as a cypher but they are really about human existence, behaviour, loves, hopes, fears and death, existentialism and evolution (or not in our human case. With Trump, Putin, Syria, ISIS, global warming, famine, North Korea, the almost fashionable misogyny we see in the media and all around us, how does evolution look to you right now?)

They differ in that 2001 starts from the bleak Cold War perspective that we have fucked it all up and now it’s time for the Supermen to take over ( cue numerous Bowie songs from the earliest albums onwards). Close Encounters is also about the banality of life without hope, but the possibility of a better life, maybe even life after death. ET kinda the same but with cuddly toy merchandise potential. Arrival is a reflection on love, loss and resurrection, on communication and connection vs miscommunication. All focus on the bigger better hopeful world beyond our hum drum, sadness soaked existence and meaningless human interchanges (the aliens talk in light, music, circles in these movies, the humans exchange bland bollocks and threats).

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Another similarity is powerful symbolism and visual imagery – a black monolith, a brooding mountain, in Arrival, black hovering ellipses – but that’s a whole other essay!

There will be better films – Moonlight and Hidden Figures I am particularly looking forward to – this year but from the perspective of not just our relations with each other, but life, the universe and (the meaning of ) everything, Arrival will stay with me for a long while just as 2001 has done (I can list out almost every frame let alone scene) across a lifetime.

These days more than ever, at least since impending nuclear oblivion haunted the fifties through to the eighties, popular culture as well as higher art can show us there is more to human existence than just surviving the next bucket of shit waiting around the corner. Not bad for two hours in the dark with a big Coke and a bag of popcorn.



It’s my party and I’ll rant if I want to

In a marketing industry obsessed with youth, it is probably career and social suicide to admit THAT I JUST HAD MY SIXTIETH BIRTHDAY. There, I said it.

Do I feel any different? Apart from the proverbial one day closer to death, no. But that’s not how many marketeers see it. Cue spam emails and direct mail shots on everything from retirement and inheritance planning to erectile dysfunction. As one of my planners put it, we do like to put people in boxes.

Aged sixty. Couldn't possibly be a model

Aged sixty. Couldn’t possibly be a model

My favourite wearable brands include Adidas (68 years old), Ben Sherman (54 years old) and Paul Smith (opened first shop almost fifty years ago). My favourite brand in the world is Gibson (the company is 115 years old and the Les Paul is an old age pensioner at 65). Your body clock doesn’t click over another year and suddenly you are in the market for elasticated gardening trousers.

Brands from Adidas to Netflix to Bowie defy the traditional “people in boxes” approach to demographics. But a lot of marketing hasn’t cottoned on. Possibly because planning departments are full of Millennials who see the world through their eyes rather than through the diverse and increasingly complex world’s eyes.

Over sixty. Couldn't possibly be creative

Over sixty. Couldn’t possibly be creative

Average life expectancy in the UK is now over eighty. Lumping the over sixties together is similar to saying you will like and consume the same stuff at twenty as when you celebrate your Big Four O, and so will everyone else in that age group. Or Millennials in their carefree early twenties are exactly the same as mid thirties Millennials with a growing family and a mortgage.

Then there are the ageist attitudes in our industry so eloquently talked about by my IPG colleague Nicky Bullard, chair of MRM-Meteorite, in her “shocking idiotic prejudice” speech at Eurobest last December (see earlier post below). Not only for dismissing experience and insight gleaned over successful careers of achievement and leadership,  but also failing to understand truths such as a third of all tablets in the UK are in the hands of the over fifties, and within twenty years that older demographic will control 75% of wealth in this country. It’s about the technology and the money, stupid.

So with the defiant air of Keith Richards posing with that “I survived 2016″ sign I say f*** you to ageism and the stereotypes and sit back with a glass of fine wine I would neither have truly appreciated or been able to afford at 21.


Grim oop North?

I have been in communications for for 35 years and a PR agency for 22 of those years, so there is little in the way of Ad Fab bollocks,  pretentious nonsense and plain common sense dressed up as earth shattering and internet breaking, that takes me by surprise any more. But an article by the Chief Strategy Officer of O&M in Campaign magazine this week had me alternatively rolling around laughing and rolling my eyes in despair. blog

His analysis – that  Brexit was a shock to the London and metropolitan establishment, and that increasingly the opinion elite are out of touch  with what people outside South West and North London (or the Groucho Club) are thinking and experiencing – is correct.

I heard similar from senior editors at The Economist a few weeks back. But “planning in the wild”, getting “out there” and sticking nice middle class planners on trains to Brexit centres like Boston, Lincs, to Oldham and – bizarrely – The Isle of Man (?! I could fix them up with a few insightful chats in Salford) to listen to “real people” (argh! All people are “real”, it’s just some experience life more real than others)  harks back to some Evelyn Waugh-esque jaunt to see how the peasants live.

During my time I have been lucky enough to work with some great insights strategists like Deborah Mattinson of Britain Thinks, and the late great Phillip Gould, who spent years listening respectfully to people across Britain on why they had fallen out of love with Labour.  Not an away day to Ormskirk for Jeremy and Jemima from the planning department. I assume his next strategy is to lock his team in a room to watch back to back episodes of “Coronation Street”, eyelids clamped open Clockwork Orange style but with flat whites on tap for survival. Rather than just get out of the Groucho and the office and go talk to “real” people in seemingly alien towns and social groups, maybe his “chief strategy” should be to actually hire some of them into his bloody team! Oh and buy them a copy of “Everytown” by Julian Baggini, much cheaper than a first class Virgin Rail ticket. And maybe open up offices outside London. If there was ever a wake up call to the need for greater diversity in PR and marketing, it’s this well meaning but facile field trip initiative. (By chance I am working on a story of an academic anthropologist who gets sent from his comfortable university surroundings to live with ordinary disadvantaged people in a northern inner city. Thanks to the O&M article I have even more black comic fodder as source material.)


Had an interesting experience at the Eurobest Festival of European Creativity, the European arm of the Cannes Lions Festival, recently in Rome. I was hosting an ‘in conversation’ session with economist and broadcaster Dr Noreena Hertz on our work together and her research on Gen K (or Gen Z – 14-21 year olds). Noreena spoke with insight and eloquence on the difference between this generation and their slightly older Millenial brothers and sisters (see for more details on our Gen K insights work).eurobest2 High on her agenda was GenK’s fear of debt, and very different relationship with brands.

Literally the next session after was on another generational issue, where my IPG colleague Nicky Bullard, chair and CCO of MRM-Meteorite, spoke passionately on “Ageism, our shocking idiotic prejudice.” She kicked off with a series of short films from multi-award-winning advertising creative gurus saying “you won’t hire me”, because they were over sixty.


Then, to make her point to the largely millennial audience, she got us all to stand up.
Then she got everyone in the audience who were under thirty to sit down. A number did. Then she got everyone under forty to sit down. The majority did. Then she got everyone under fifty to sit down. About a dozen of us were left standing. Then she got everyone under fifty five to sit down. Yours truly was the last man or woman standing – though looking round I could tell I wasn’t the only one over fifty five, just that I was the only one with the balls to stand up and admit it!

Nicky’s point wasn’t just the idiocy of disregarding talent and experience, which Sir John Hegarty has written on in Campaign recently. It was also – and this linked back to Noreena and my earlier session on GenK and their fears around debt, financial insecurity and AI stealing their jobs – that in the breathless chase for the young and increasingly financially strapped audience, marketeers were ignoring the fact that one third of tablets are now owned by people over fifty, and within twenty years in the UK the over fifties will control over 75% of the wealth.

Going back to Nicky’s point on the waste of creative skills and experience, she is setting up what she calls The Cross Project, to have older creatives who would otherwise be sacrificed on the alter of youth mentor young entrants to the marketing industry, while those young entrants mentor their older partners in new social media developments and strategies. Perfect synergy.

I have written before on my strong support for reverse mentoring, going back to when Twitter was first launched and I got the youngest member of our then fledgling social media team to mentor me in engaging on SoMe.

Full praise to Nicky for her project and for speaking out on another aspect of the diversity debate raging within advertising and marketing.

Back to the future?

katniss_everdeenI talked to a class of final year PR students this week. As I was setting up I heard one girl wail “Trump, Putin, we’re all going to die!”

She was 21. A first year Gen Z-der so to speak.

As you might have read, my firm has partnered with the wonderful Dr Noreena Hertz to bring greater insights into this circa 16-21 year old demographic – that Noreena has dubbed Gen K (for Katniss)  – to clients. Many in marketing seem to think they are just younger and lower paid Millennials. Big mistake.

While many Millennials had their early life experience forged in pre-financial crash times, Gen Z/K have grown up with global financial, political and security concerns, and have come of age in the “post truth politics” world of Trump, Corbyn, Farage, Le Pen, with ISIS, Russian foreign policy and AI threatening their todays and tomorrows.

I told her that, bizarrely, she had more in common with people like me who grew up in the seventies that those just a decade older. We joined young CND, marched with Rock Against Racism, worried about the A bomb and the IRA bomb, listened to dole queue handmade rock. In that, Gen Z/K might look at their Millennial colleagues and older kin much as we former punks once looked at the hippies.

Yet another Bowie blog

Soz. But I just started reading Paul Morley’s new biog of Bowie – subtitle “How David Bowie made a world of difference” – and I was struck by a line in his expansive preface: “everyone has their own David Bowie. So many Bowie’s: how do you keep up with them …as he constantly, provocatively moves somewhere else and becomes someone else?”


My David Bowie was – is – the key creative influence all my teenage and adult life. From mid teens hair style’s to being influenced by “Low” in my ‘later years’ to buy a synthesiser and start to create tonal landscapes.

But the most intensive “My David Bowie” period was my early to late teens, when two musical and cultural influences collided in a blaze of colour, creativity, attitude and noise – Bowie and punk.

(Ironically, as a wannabe punk poet who would clamber on stage between sets at campus gigs and rant angry verse at the bemused students, I penned a ditty called “I hate Paul Morley”. In my late teens my heart was set on music journalism, a Northerner freshly arrived in London penning (unpaid) reviews of London gigs by Northern bands for the NME. Then Paul swept in and made a living doing just that.)

My first memory was Bowie as the soundtrack to an early passion and enduring fascination with the Space Race. As I sat up with my mum to watch grainy footage of the first lunar landing, “Space Oddity” was the soundtrack, though it didn’t become a hit until later.

When his early albums came out I was defying my friends carrying Led Zep albums under their arms and was donning my mum’s fur jacket and playing air guitar to rock & roll pixie Marc Bolan. Then I sat with my family for the Thursday evening “Top of the Pops” ritual (my dad only joined us so he could shout “he looks like a bloody woman!” at the screen periodically) and there was Bowie, arm around Mick Ronson, in a sparkly jump suit singing “Starman”. Then I bought “Ziggy Stardust”. And My David Bowie had arrived. It was going to be great!

“Pin ups” introduced me to a wealth of sixties mod and psychedelia songs I had a missed being too busy with playing football and Action Man in that decade.

“Aladdin Sane” was so-so and then “Diamond Dogs” hit the teenage dystopian spot.

Then the change of direction that was “Young Americans” changed my direction as well. It got me listening to – real – black music and funk and buying “Blues & Soul” magazine. I changed my clothes in favour of Northern Soul baggy pants and penny round collars, started looking old enough to sneak in underage into Manchester clubs where soul classics were spun alongside Bowie and Roxy Music. I even tried to copy his hairstyle, sleeping with my quiff in one of my mum’s hair rollers and trying to dye it blonde. Sadly I didn’t know then that hair bleach and domestic bleach were not the same thing, used Domestos, and most of my quiff shrivelled and fell out.

Then he went to Berlin and I went to college. “Heroes” became my theme song and “Low” the soundtrack to new musical directions and investigations. They still go on. He even influenced how I portrayed my sexuality. Solidly straight, I affected bi-sexuality because Bowie had said it’s ok. My ladies squash team captain girlfriend was so worried she bought me Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” , no doubt to cure me of all this Bowie, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Clash weirdness.

In my twenties and thirties Bowie and I went our separate ways, with me still resolutely playing his seventies string of albums from time to time. It was talking to Dylan Jones, GQ editor and fellow Bowie obsessive, ten years ago that brought us back together (Dylan has also authored a great Bowie book). By then I was learning to play guitar and keyboards and bought a Bowie songbook to start to deconstruct his song writing for myself. Then I bought the synth. Then Bowie arrived again with a new album, then another, then…

Morley’s book rightly puts Bowie as the key influencer and observer of swirling popular culture over the decades of his and my generation’s life, from the sixties to now. So many Bowie’s, so little time.


Douglas Slocombe’s chair

My family spent a few days on the north Norfolk coast recently. One day we went to nearby Burnham Market for lunch. The little town is a bit like Islington on Sea in terms of the shops and visitors. Turns out that every Monday during the summer they have an open air auction on the green. As I wandered around the second hand bikes and lawn mowers, and boxes of bric a brac being eyed up by a throng of car boot sellers, I came across a couple of old canvas director’s chairs folded and leaning unloved against a tree in the shade. Opening up the least worm eaten and rickety, I saw the following legend carefully hand written in fading letters:

Douglas Slocombe, Lighting Cameraman.2C7ABBBF-159A-416D-9BFD-9C68EEDD43BB

As a cinematography nerd in my teens, I knew exactly who he was, and assumed others would as well. I was excited.

Douglas Slocombe was one of the great British film makers, not a director but a cameraman associated with a long list of award winning movies, from the Ealing comedies of the fifties, through classics like The Great Gatsby, The Italian Job, The Servant and The Music Lovers, through to the Indiana Jones movies. He won multiple BAFTA’s and other British and American cinematography awards, and was thrice nominated for an Academy Award. The son of a journalist, he had originally planned to be a news photographer and ended up a film maker for The Ministry of Information, making wartime documentaries. His work on British and American movies over four decades marked him out as one of the greats of cinema. He died in February earlier this year, aged 103.

Anyone like me who grew up marvelling at the visual imagery of Stanley Kubrick, David Lean and Ken Russell, and wanting to be a visual story teller themselves, knew Slocombe’s name. I assumed some of the well heeled Burnham Market holiday folks on the green would too and prepared for a bidding war with some holidaying humanities professor.

In the end barely anyone (“who the blazes was he?” remarked one auction regular) gave the chair or it’s fading writing a second glance and I got it uncontested for a fiver. It sits in my study amongst shelves of books on cinema, art and photography.

In the days of Hollywood remakes of film classics, franchise movie series, Instagram and Vine, it would be sad to forget a British pioneer of cinematic art.